Marijuana DUI Cases Increase with Medical Marijuana Use in California

Feb 13, 2014 @ 11:04 AM — by Myles L. Berman

As California marijuana laws have evolved in the last couple of decades, law enforcement has begun to expand their focus on driving under the influence and bring their attention to marijuana DUI enforcement.  Over the last five years, The California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) has reportedan increase in the incidence of drugs in fatal accidents, and it seems that with an increase in medical marijuana use since legalization, has come an increase in “DUID” or Driving Under the Influence of Drugs prosecutions statewide.

Under the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, “…seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit...”  And while California drivers who lawfully prescribe to and use medical marijuana might think it is legal for them to drive under the influence of marijuana, that is not the case.  The law covers all controlled substances, including marijuana, and medical marijuana users must be aware that they are not necessarily exempt from DUI laws by reason of their medical status. 

California law says whether lawfully possessed or not, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of any substance if it causes physical or mental impairment that makes a driver unable to do so safely.  On January 1, 2014, changes to State driving under the influence laws (section (e) of Sections 23152 and 23153 of the Vehicle Code) went into effect in efforts to make it more distinguished for law enforcement to identify, arrest, and ultimately prosecute drug impaired driving cases withDUID.  But until science catches up with the law, this may be an uphill battle. 

Unlike proving driving under the influence as it relates to alcohol, studies show that it is more difficult to prove whether a driver was actually under the influence of marijuana at the time of an accident or arrest.  This is because the presence of marijuana in a user’s blood does not necessarily indicate whether the drug was used moments or days prior to the incident, as metabolites from marijuana usage remain in the blood for some time after the effects of “getting high” have worn off.  In efforts to support the emerging problem of drugged driving, federal funds granting specialized drug-impaired driver detection training, crime lab drug-testing equipment, and dedicated sobriety checkpoints have been put into place.  In effect, state, county, and city agencies are better equipped to combat impaired driving. 

At the federal level, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).  According to the CSA, “substances in Schedule I have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.”  Studies have shown that cannabis intoxication has been reported to mildly impair skills that involve both mental and muscular ability and that often, drivers under the influence of marijuana are aware of their impairment and attempt to compensate by reducing their speed.

Even if California legalizes marijuana for beyond medical use with regulations similar to alcohol, driving under the influence won’t be legal.  Criminal penalties for a marijuana DUI conviction, even after medicinal use, are the same as when convicted with an alcohol DUI and agencies are working to secure convictions and sentencing that reflects the risk to public safety posed by offenders.

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